A federal agency voted to kick off the repeal of "net neutrality" rules designed to keep broadband providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast from interfering with the internet. It's the latest change that the Federal Communications Commission has made to ease regulation of the phone, broadcast and cable industries. Undoing the net neutrality rules - which, for instance, block providers from favoring their own apps and services over those of competitors like Netflix - may be the biggest battle yet triggered by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, an Indian-American. The tech industry, which sees net neutrality as necessary to innovation, is already pushing back by lobbying politicians, sending letters of protest to the agency and starting to rally supporters. The FCC's three commissioners voted 2-1, with the lone Democrat opposed, to start a process aimed at unwinding the net neutrality rules. It will be months before final rules are up for a vote. Pai often argues that net neutrality rules are heavy handed and discourage broadband investment. His goal, he says, is to encourage companies to build out their wired and wireless broadband networks and draw more Americans online. For support, Pai turns to a study by Hal Singer, a net- neutrality critic and economist who has worked as a telecom- industry consultant. Singer found that such infrastructure investment by network companies has declined 5.6 percent in 2016 from 2014.
The telecom trade group USTelecom likewise says broadband investment is falling in the aftermath of the net neutrality rules. Free Press, an advocacy group that supports net neutrality, has its own competing study showing broadband companies' infrastructure spending rose, and says USTelecom is wrong to exclude some spending by AT&T and Sprint. Pai today defended the analysis he relied on, saying it's the more accurate measure of investment in the US. Industry analysts, however, say it's so far hard to say, and note that other factors also affect investment. In June 2015, the Obama-era FCC decided to regulate broadband as a "Title II" service - putting it, like phone service, under stricter government oversight. That gave the FCC authority to enforce net neutrality rules. Companies worried that regime would make it easier to regulate the prices they charged for broadband. "From where we sit, the overall level of investment in the business is still pretty strong," said Moody's Mark Stodden, who analyzes telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T. "I hear companies complaining about net neutrality and Title II, but I think it's a cop-out. I don't think they're actually spending less. They don't like it so they complain about it.
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